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The Elephant Keeper

Photo courtesy of Sara Parsons ’10

Sara Parsons ’10

Sara Parsons ’10 grew up in the country with an array of pets: dogs, cats, rabbits and turtles. Today, as an elephant keeper at the Indianapolis Zoo, her love for animals has grown stronger—and the animals she cares for… much bigger!

Each day, Parsons is responsible for both the physical and mental health of the elephants in her care. She feeds them, bathes them and cleans up after them. While caring for their mental health is less physically demanding, it involves careful monitoring of changes in their behavior.

“Since the elephant can’t speak to us, we have to look at many different aspects of their behavior and any changes from their ‘normal’ behavior,” she says.

For example, during training sessions, Parsons says they look for the elephant to be engaged (an indication of good mental health), which means quick, consistent responses. Elephants are social animals, she notes, so it’s important for them to interact with people, but especially, other elephants.

Communication is one of Parson’s biggest challenges.

“Fortunately, elephants are extremely intelligent so they tend to pick up on patterns and cues fairly quickly,” she says. “Adult elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo know 40 to 50 different behaviors on cue working with up to seven trainers.”

Parsons uses operant conditioning or positive reinforcement, a type of training that is dependent on the elephant’s choice to participate. Although sometimes the elephants may not want to participate during training sessions, Parsons explains that such moments can be helpful.

“While this can be frustrating and challenging to trainers and keepers,” she says, “it also gives us an opportunity to trouble shoot and try different approaches, no different than training your pet at home or even trying to potty-train your child.”

Indications of poor mental health include dull eyes, weight loss, decreased movement/exercise or abnormal behaviors. “As a keeper/trainer, we are on the front lines for the health of the animals in our care. When we notice subtle changes in behavior or body condition, which might indicate decreased mental or physical health, we work closely with veterinarians and management to return the animal to its happy, healthy self.”

For Parsons, a biology/evolutionary studies major with a master’s degree in zoology from Miami University of Ohio, seeing visitors interact with the elephants at the zoo gives her a great deal of joy.

“I think people connect with animals and nature when in the presence of it. I hope people leave the zoo having learned something they didn’t know before,” she says.

Parsons is also an active conservationist working with the American Association of Zookeepers.”

– Francheska Taveras ’17

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